Connell continuing to chase the dream
Stockbroker and former amateur jockey has high hopes of watching his emerging string yield more dividends on track
Published 11/12/2010 | 05:00
The least you can say is that he left his mark. Barry Connell didn't set out on an afterthought of a riding career to make a statement, but he retired from the saddle at the beginning of October having confounded the sceptics by seeing it through.
What's more, over the duration of his 10-year stint in the amateur ranks, the 51-year-old south Dublin stockbroker earned the unmitigated respect of his peers. He even had the good grace to be forced out of the job after a valiant return from serious injury.
Connell eventually raised the white flag, but only once he had copper-fastened his cult hero status by defying a three-month absence to revisit to the winner's enclosure for a final shot of horsepower-fuelled adrenalin. In the end, he departed the jockeys' room as one of their own, having conclusively demonstrated the unique brand of defiant resilience that is a prerequisite of that most revered sanctum.
Asked if the moment of realisation that his unlikely foray was coming to an end was a sad one, Connell pauses briefly before replying, "It was." To this day, it seems, he is surprised by the way in which the rush of winning and hunger for success took hold.
"I mean," he continues, "I knew at some stage that I was going to have to make a decision, and I was probably on borrowed time after the injury that I sustained last November. I had a dislocation and a fairly nasty fracture of the shoulder. I got it patched up and got screws put in it and so forth, but it wasn't really going to be suitable for race-riding longer term, so I had it in the back of my head for a while that it was something that was going to have to be addressed."
Bullock Harbour, the Jessica Harrington-trained horse that carried Connell to two triumphs since his spell on the sidelines, provided the final flourish to a tale fit for Hollywood at Listowel when winning in September. The great adventure, which had its genesis in a Fairyhouse charity race 11 years earlier, had reached its natural conclusion. But what an adventure it was.
A high-flying founding member of the NCB and Merrion investment institutions, Connell was well into his 30s before he ever even sat on a horse. By the time he rode in that charity race, he was 39.
It might never have gone any further but at Fairyhouse Bushman's River prevailed by a short-head, race-riding's equivalent of the ultimate trip. Connell wanted more.
He had the financial muscle to fund his habit, and specifically went about buying horses that he could ride for himself in bumpers. Tony Mullins and Ted Walsh, who saddled Bushman's River, initially facilitated his needs, but his spread of suppliers grew steadily. Now, over a dozen trainers have his horses on their books.
It was Mullins, though, who initiated the legend. At the Cheltenham Open meeting in 2003, Connell had his first ride in England for the Kilkenny handler. The Posh Paddy stormed to victory up the famous Prestbury Park hill, with one AP McCoy beaten out of sight on a Martin Pipe-trained favourite.
All of a sudden, the eloquent fund manager was the talk of the racecourse. Ungainly to look at on a horse compared to his polished counterparts, Connell was far from unable, and the slightly madcap appeal of a middle-aged suit getting his mid-life kicks on such a public platform was a source of rare intrigue. How could you not admire his chutzpah?
By the time Connell finally succumbed to the inevitable, he had ridden 34 winners. He secured his Cotswold legacy by steering Shinrock Paddy to another famous Open victory in 2008 and partnered the same horse into eighth in the Champion Bumper last year, the second time from two tries that he achieved a top-10 finish in the race.
"I'd a good 10-year spell at it," he agrees, "and had a real bit of success. That was a bonus. I wasn't expecting to get the level of success that I did. The Cheltenham win on The Posh Paddy came very early and I was completely bitten by the bug after that.
"The whole experience is something I will look back on very fondly. I'm still involved, though. I ride work on all the horses before they run, which is the next best thing."
Still involved he certainly is. Connell's string has never looked more potent. A policy that sees him clear out the dead weight every year to make space for fresh blood has left him with a nucleus of rich talent such as Shinrock Paddy and Pineau De Re, which is entered in the Grade One Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Wednesday.
Enticed by the quality of the well-kept summer venues in England, he added the likes of Carl Llewellyn, Nigel Twiston-Davies, and Jonjo O'Neill to his roster in recent years. That contingent continues to grow, led by the classy novice Frascati Park.
Far from his interest waning now that he must watch from the stands, Connell is energised by what lies ahead. Indeed, a whole range of new possibilities now exists.
He explains: "The plan is still the same in that I will only keep the horses that are up to running in graded races or maybe some top-class handicaps but, in terms of buying policy, I won't be strictly buying bumper-type horses any more. So I will probably have more stoutly bred horses from now on with a view to going chasing.
"Hopefully some of the better ones over hurdles at the moment will jump fences, including Shinrock Paddy. He is definitely one I'd like to see chasing.
"His main target for the moment is the Grade Two stayers' hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas and there is a very good programme of those type of races at home during the winter, so we'll make the most of those while we have proper winter ground.
"We also have Pineau De Re. We think he could be very good, which is why we entered him in the Grade One Hurdle that was meant to be on at Navan on Sunday. He is one of the best jumpers of a hurdle I've ever had -- very slick -- so he is very exciting too."
Thus, Connell's long-legged, slightly laconic figure, which lent itself perfectly to the Corinthian ideal that he was so often associated with when he rode, will continue to frequent our racecourses. Moreover, given the freedom that a re-jigged approach to sourcing talent will allow, his patronage of Irish racing may yet be in its infancy.
Last year only Michael O'Leary and JP McManus ran more horses than Barry Connell on Irish racecourses, while he has generously sponsored an amateur riders' series through his current Rockview management company since 2005.
He will continue to leave his mark, then, but mere ownership will struggle to ever match the thrill of those gallant endeavours in the saddle.
"I have had two or three bumper runners since I retired," he muses, "and it was a bit strange, watching someone else walking away in the colours and getting up on the horse. But, sure, that's the way it is now -- I'll just have to let them at it."